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Car reviews - Ford - Focus - Sport 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Class-leading dynamics, excellent performance, cabin functionality, design, quality, practicality, driver interactivity, ride comfort
Room for improvement
Manual five-speed only, reduced rear vision, no digital speedo readout, no rear air-vents, tight rear headroom, not much else

2 Sep 2011

TO PUT into perspective how important the new Focus is for Ford Australia, consider this.

From the early 1950s to middle 2000s the nation's top-sellers were either a big Holden (Kingswood then Commodore) or Ford Falcon, and for decades nothing upset the duopoly for any extended period of time.

Yes, plenty of challenges tried, namely Chrysler with the Valiant, then Sigma, before Mitsubishi took over and pitched the always-superior Magna against the popular six-cylinder/V8 pair.

But then a convergence of shifting tastes, greater choice, changing demographics, rocketing fuel prices, cheaper air travel and more disposable income came together in just a few short years to destroy the Commodore/Falcon nexus.

Over the last few years, Australia’s best-sellers – particularly among private buyers – have been four-cylinder small cars wearing badges like Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Holden Cruze.

So it is no understatement to suggest that beleaguered Ford – once the number one car brand and with 86 years of manufacturing history in Australia – is counting heavily on the third Focus to fire.

Not coincidentally, Ford’s shrinking market share correlates with its languishing local small car fortunes, despite the last-gen Focus’ stellar reputation as a driver’s car, among many other attributes.

We won’t keep you in suspense though. Out of the aforementioned best-sellers, the all-new LW series is our first choice.

But another question remains: Can the Focus take the fight right up to the Volkswagen Golf – the classic ‘overnight success’ story that has been 35 years in the making in Australia, our current class favourite and a top-six seller in the small car segment?

To find out, we asked Ford for a base $21,990 Ambiente (ousting the old Focus’ CL nomenclature)… and ended up with the $27,390 Sport 2.0 GDI (Zetec replacement) instead.

Sport: dull name perhaps, but it’s a good omen in a small Ford. From 1981 to 1985, during the original Laser’s halcyon days, the Sport helped lure many buyers to the Blue Oval brand.

That’s GDI as in Gasoline Direct Injection, by the way. It delivers a very healthy 125kW of power at 6600rpm and 202Nm of torque at 4450rpm, compared to the previous-gen’s 107kW/182Nm outputs.

And the difference really shows on the road.

Quiet, smooth and very willing to rev right past the 6500rpm redline to the 7000rpm cut-out, this Focus always feels strong right from the get-go. It is worth noting that Ford does run its press cars on 98 RON ultra premium unleaded fuel where applicable.

But there’s more. Besides punchy acceleration, the 2.0 GDI possesses a very strong midrange, so much so that the pull from about 80km/h to 150km/h had us wondering whether a low-pressure turbo was somehow secretly fitted to our test car.

One of Ford’s top priorities when developing the LW was to obliterate noise paths, especially from the wheels and tyres. Even on our 17-inch shod Sport, the result is quietness almost on a par with the class-leading Golf.

A side effect of this though is that you’re always travelling faster than you might think, underlining the zingy 2.0 GDI’s performance – and licence-losing – capabilities. Drivers beware.

So it’s a crying shame that Ford couldn’t match, say, the Toyota Corolla by offering six rather than five forward speeds, especially in the Sport manual.

As it stands, the manual shifter is one of the best around, with well-spaced ratios, so spinning at 2500rpm at 100km/h in fifth (top) means that the engine sounds relaxed. Still, there were times we just instinctively went for that phantom sixth gear.

Restoring the Focus’ driver’s car credentials is the first-class chassis. Simply put, right now, there isn’t a non-Renaultsport/GTI/RS hatch that steers, corners and hugs the road with the alacrity and joy of the Sport.

Tip the new EPAS – yes, folks, it stands for electrically power-assisted steering – equipped Focus into a corner and the car glides though. Up the speed and tighten the turn, and it still zips around with towering composure. Throw in a bumpy surface or ragged edge and the Ford remains flat and unflustered. Brilliant.

Just as impressively, the brakes respond with equal tenacity and reassurance, and without the over-sensitivity that can blight the Golf’s binders for some drivers. The standard Hill Hold Assist that keeps the car rolling backwards during take-offs on inclines is a further bonus.

These all would have been enough for us to declare the Focus complete, yet the Sport has one more ace up its sleeve – a superbly supple ride quality. Yep, it soaks up bumps incredibly well for a warm hatch on 215/50 R17 rubber, and all the while remains commendably quiet doing it.

And remember: this is the Sport suspension configuration, meaning a firmer spring and damper set-up and a lower ride height.

Ford has achieved an amazing balance of dynamicism, comfort and refinement that resets the benchmark for the money, no questions asked.

But we are the first to admit that we do prefer the extra nuance of tactility, weight and feedback that the old hydraulic steering set-up offers.

However, that is only really ascertainable if you are a long-time LR-LV Focus owner, or drive past and present back-to-back. As it stands, the Sport’s athleticism and comfort characteristics feel almost miraculous.

Of course the LW isn’t perfect, so on to the bad points we go.

We found ourselves achieving very average fuel consumption figures, although to be fair that’s because of the way the Sport’s engine and chassis goaded us on to drive it like 17-year-old car thieves. Apparently the 2.0 GDI can achieve 7.2L/100km, but even our average fuel consumption readout never dropped below 9.4.

The turning circle is perhaps not as tight as we might have liked it to be.

And the standard rear park sensors on our model are very necessary, since reversing vision is hampered by the high waistline and shallow rear glass.

Stepping inside the Ford also shows massive progress (yes, we’re back on the good stuff again).

Foci have never felt flimsy, but the latest version seems bank-vault hefty in the way the doors open and shut. There’s no denying this is a German-engineered (and made, for now) vehicle, with the advances in the newcomer’s overall strength and rigidity being immediately apparent. Torsional stiffness soars 20 per cent, and it shows.

The same sense of solidity applies to the fascia, which – while not as sober or classy as the Golf’s, as the grades of material just don’t seem as fine as VW uses – is at last big on quality, style and functionality.

It's also a complete departure (for good or for bad) from the basic yet stupendously fathomable item found in the previous Focus.

The front seats are first-class – large and firm but supportive, with a good spread of adjustment and – in our Sport – mildly bolstered to help keep you in place around corners.

A solid, smartly presented (if slightly fussy in appearance) dashboard faces the driver, with modern, modish shapes for the clearly marked gauges. A trip computer screen is situated directly between the analogue dials, with clever menu layers.

Sadly, there is no digital speed readout, but that’s one of the few issues we have with the whole Focus interior.

Plenty of people will appreciate Ford’s new-found attention to detail, such as the fascia’s night-time illumination, distinctive white and contrasting blue fonts for both info screens (instrumentation and upper console), rubberised dash surfacing, massive sunvisors, lane-change indicators, hugely effective clap-hand wipers, and green up/down shift light to maximise fuel efficiency.

Ford has worked hard to make this interior much more appealing than the last, and it shows.

The attractive four-spoke steering wheel has integrated switches for the cruise and (new to Ford) speed-limiter controls, as well as for audio and telephony functions.

It tilts and telescopes so a suitable driving position is possible every time, and all the items work with quality precision.

After a small period of familiarisation, so does the Sony-branded audio layout, which at first can intimidate with at least 26 separate buttons – and many of them have double-up functionality.

Being an upper-level Sport, the heater/AC system is climate control-based and looks similar to the item found in today’s VWs.

Storage concerns won’t keep the Focus owner up at night – not only is the glovebox vast, there are sizeable bins in the door and centre console, while the outboard rear-seat passengers get two side-seat slots (including a side-of-seat dished area that looks designed to catch coins and keys as they fall out from people’s trouser pockets), as well as the regular seat-back map pockets, door bins and centre armrest cupholders recess.

But why are there so many different shades of black and grey? At least it is nowhere near as gloomy out back as in the old Focus.

Getting in and out is easier than the fast roofline angle suggests thanks to long doors, but once there, the lack of rear air-vents in this Sport-spec model is disappointing. And headroom is just adequate for a 185cm adult.

Conversely, Ford has gone to the trouble of providing damped overhead grab-handles, LED reading lights and one-touch power window switches. The single white stitching does lift the ambience as well.

Tipping the split rear seat cushions forward and dropping both backrests down results in a relatively flat cargo floor area, and as much luggage space as you would need in a modern small hatchback.

The difference here is that the craftsmanship is much, much better in the German-made LW than the previous South African-built LS/LT/LV versions, although again the Golf is superior for appearance, fit and finish.

The hatch lid opens up vast and high – perhaps too high for shorter folk to reach the grab handles, so make sure you try this before you buy – and the loading lip is low to make hauling stuff over and inside easier.

Note too that the child-seat restraint points are positioned so the attachment straps do not foul cargo space, while a space-saver spare aids in the floor being relatively deep. Luggage capacity is rated from 316 litres to 1101 litres – or 39 litres less if the full-sized spare option is utilised.

All up then, it is clear the latest Ford small car is of a huge significance for the company globally.

For the third-generation version, virtually everything that traditionally helped make the Focus the driver’s choice has been either retained or enhanced, while the bits many people complained about – namely the drab and noisy interior and dated exterior styling – have been brought up to date emphatically.

Would we have a Focus over a Mazda3, Toyota Corolla or Holden Cruze? Yes, yes and yes. That was easy, and obvious even after a short drive. That’s why the Ford deserves to be Australia’s best-selling small car.

But would we have the $27,390 Sport 2.0 GDi over its $29,490 Golf 118TSI Comfortline equivalent?

Well, put it this way. If the Focus becomes the best-selling small car on the planet, we won’t be surprised at all. Merit where it is long overdue.

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